Afcon: Dependence on half-fit Naby Keita could cause Guinea problems

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Naby Keita - Liverpool
The Liverpool midfielder, by his own admission, is less than 100 percent, and his presence could hamper the Syli Nationale at the Nations Cup

Considering the single-minded focus with which Liverpool were challenging on two fronts in early May, it is understandable that the loss of Naby Keita to yet another injury barely registered.

Certainly, it was an inconvenience, and may have contributed to the loss of rhythm that led to a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 defeat on the night at Camp Nou. However, with the brief turnaround time between the first and second legs of that Uefa Champions League semi-final, there was little time for the Reds to wallow in his loss anyway.

As it turns out, they would pull that chestnut out of the fire in the most dramatic fashion, with Netherlands international Georginio Wijnaldum scoring twice in the return leg at Anfield by surging into the box late.

That, perhaps, would have been Keita motoring into the box, a fact that perfectly encapsulates what the nature of the Liverpool midfield is: beyond the subtle nuances of the individual, the components are almost entirely fungible, and are there to provide the energy and grind that defines the club’s playing style under Jurgen Klopp.

Naby Keita | 2018-19 Premier League stats

For Guinea, however, Keita fulfils an altogether more eclectic role, connecting the midfield to the forwards with a combination of shimmies, shoulder drops and one-twos; sometimes, all feature in a single move. He is the spark, he is Prometheus.

Naby Keita Liverpool 2018-19

As such, whereas Liverpool were quick to rule him out for the Africa Cup of Nations this month, the Syli Nationale have moved heaven and earth to ensure he will be available in Egypt.

Coach Paul Put revealed that he put “a lot of pressure on Liverpool” to release Keita, and the player himself, while admitting he is not fully fit, told Foot 224 that he would be “ready for the first match” against Madagascar on June 22.

As a marker of just how important he is to the Guinean cause, this is as stark as is possible. He captained the side twice during qualifying, and Guinea have not won a game – competitive or otherwise – in which he did not start since 2016. Even half-fit, a serious tilt at the Afcon, or at the very least a deep run, is that much harder to envisage.

However, unless one believes in such metaphysical concepts as good energy and lucky totems, there is an argument that playing a less than 100 percent player, however good he is (and Keita is very good), can have the opposite effect, dampening the mood and belief of the group.

While Guinea’s midfield is slanted a lot more toward functionality without their talisman, Amadou Diawara is a brilliant prospect, and a pairing with Fulham’s Ibrahima Cisse would be adequate, even if not spectacular. There is also the exciting talent of Horoya’s young midfielder Abdoulaye Paye Camara, who can offer invention in the middle of the park.

Abdoulaye Paye Camara of Horoya AC

The danger with sticking with Keita and defying an initial two-month injury prognosis is that, if he is any less effective than he usually is, playing within a team wired to give him the ball, it would effectively neuter the side’s attacking thrust.

If, however, the idea is to keep him 'dry', as it were, waiting on him to build up fitness at a later point in the competition, the rest of the team can get stuck in limbo mentally, marking time while waiting on their talisman to come and offer clarity, even salvation.

France came into the World Cup in 2002 as world champions, boasting one of the most stacked squads in the competition, but had to make do without arguably their best player in Zinedine Zidane for the opening two games. Despite a glut of attacking riches, they exited the tournament without scoring a goal, unable to break down either debutants Senegal or a limited Uruguay side; the team seemed utterly clueless as to how it was supposed to create.

For all that he represents, Guinea absolutely have to make certain he cannot participate before opting to leave him out. That much is understandable.

That said, if he is any less than the complete article, then Put will have a brave call to make.